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What Price Failure?

April 30, 2008

"Fear of failure is rampant in our lives. I see this fear rear its ugly head in so many communities, where it can have a crippling effect on people’s work and psyche. Sometimes we don’t even realize the fear is within us, only to find ourselves stymied or stuck. The upshot is that we hide from taking risk, and the status quo wins out...."

So writes Rich Harwood in a new post on his Redeeming Hope blog. Rich's experience as an activist in a community where "jobs were scarce, trust was fleeting, and there was lots of finger-pointing and placing of blame" was the catalyst for a dream he had once, a dream he recently had occasion to recall. He calls it the "$100,000 Flop," and it was centered around getting a foundation to pay him to fail. As Rich describes it:

At the time a major foundation was funding various change efforts in the community....But progress was slow. No matter how much the foundation funded, fear persisted. People didn’t want to come out from their homes and leaders wouldn’t work with one another. Simply giving out grants didn’t seem to be the answer; money cannot easily erase something as insidious as fear. So I went to the foundation and asked for funding for an initiative that would intentionally fail in full public view. That’s right, I wanted to fail.

After failing, my plan was to call a meeting in the center of town for people to talk about what had happened, and why the initiative had failed. I simply wanted people to see that we could talk openly, in public, about our failures, and that nothing would happen to us. We’d all come through the experience intact, no matter how hard or excruciating the conversation was. I wanted people to see that we could dissect the initiative and together could produce insights that would help all of us; that the conversation need not end in more finger-pointing and acrimony. I wanted to create an opportunity for people to see themselves in my failure; and really believe they would be okay....

Crazy, right?

Maybe not. Silicon Valley, the most successful wealth-creation engine in the world, has thrived in part by ignoring the stigma that usually attaches to failure. Sure, Rich's dream is about intentional failure. But it's failure with a purpose. And his larger point is an important one: In social change work, as in our personal lives, the fear of failure can stop us before we even get started.

You can read the rest of Rich's post here. And if you have a story about a foundation funding failure, or being willing to fund it, we'd love to hear it.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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Quote of the Week

  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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